Written by Dr. Reynante L. Ordonio
As we aim for food security, producing enough, affordable, and accessible foods for consumers is our battlecry. More to this is to ensure that these foods are of high quality, safe, and nutritious.
Not only quantity but also quality
A combination of different agricultural technologies and strategies has to be explored and utilized to achieve food security. Among these technologies, perhaps the most powerful yet the most controversial is the use of modern biotechnology or genetic engineering. With this, genes from one species can be transferred to another to create organisms with a novel combination of genes, refered to as genetically modified organism (GMO).
Because of the unlimited combinations of genes that can be integrated into an organism, genetic engineering has a great potential for use in rice research for designing plants with higher yield, better quality in terms of increased resistance to insect pests and diseases, improved tolerance to environmental stresses, effective nutrient uptake, shorter breeding time, enhanced nutritional value, etc.
One of PhilRice’s efforts in promoting better nutrition among Filipinos is the Healthier Rice Project. This revolves around the development of a genetically modified rice with high beta carotene, also known as Golden Rice (GR), and its future biofortifications to address Vitamin A, iron, and zinc deficiencies in the country.
GMOs worldwide are governed by a stringent biosafety regulatory process starting from their development to commercialization. The biosafety procedure involves a series of checkpoints to ensure that GMOs or their by-products will meet the expected level of safety to health and the environment. Going through this procedure doesn’t mean that GMOs have higher risks as even ordinary foods such as peanuts, milks, melons, breads, and shrimps can cause harm as sources of allergens. In fact, GMOs can even be a lot safer because of this strict biosafety process.
Golden Rice itself had to go through a series of rigorous testing and regulatory procedures. To ensure that GR is safe for the environment and health, candidate PSB Rc82 GR lines (planting material) were in 2015 subjected to confined field-testing (CFT1) in isolated/fenced areas for at least 2 cropping seasons in 3 different locations in the Philippines. During the tests, any discrepancy or variation from the original variety in terms of appearance or agromorphological characteristics, and any unusual disease, pest, or weed incidence at the sites were carefully assessed. The DOST-Biosafety Committee (DOST-BC) that provides overall supervision along with scientist representatives and members of the local community who jointly form the Institutional Biosafety Committee of each site, see to it that biosafety guidelines are followed. Among these guidelines is preventing the intentional or unintentional release of viable seeds or plants from the site, and the proper disposal or transport of transgenic materials.
After finishing CFT2 in 2016, the 5 best-performing lines are to be forwarded to a season of field trials under the supervision of the DA-Bureau of Plant Industry (DA-BPI), following Joint Department Circular No. 1 Series of 2016 pertaining to the handling and use, transboundary movement, release, and management of GMOs. Aside from DA and DOST, this circular now also involves the Departments of Health, Environment & Natural Resources, and Interior & Local Government. This collaborative assessment further ensures the safety of Golden Rice.
The edible parts or grains of GMOs also need to be assesed for safety and suitability for food, feed, and processing (FFP). For this purpose, Codex Alimentarius guidelines on food safety are being implemented for evaluating their equivalence to their conventional counterparts (means “as safe as”) in terms of their molecular and chemical compositions. The molecular aspect includes information about the sources of the genes and how they were used, along with their biochemical implications. The proteins produced by the foreign genes must not be toxic nor allergenic, and must not have unintended effects. Compositional data in terms of nutrients, bioactive non-nutrients, antinutrients, toxicants, contaminants, and other potentially useful and dangerous elements must also be analyzed to identify deviations from the norm. In the case of GR, the level and bioavailability of beta-carotene were also analyzed. So far, the Food Standards Australia New Zealand has found that GR has no public health or safety concerns or issues. This means that Golden Rice is as safe as ordinary rice.
Once the technology has passed the rest of the biosafety procedures, only then will it be approved by government for commercialization. Ultimately, we expect that Golden Rice will notonly pass biosafety regulations but also be proven efficacious in fighting Vitamin A deficiency, the real reason for its conception. – with reports from Jungie Q. Amacanin